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New Data Shed Light on Polarization in America (Barna)

July 20, 2022

Ministry leaders of all stripes have increasingly had to navigate the reality of polarized views within their communities and congregations. For instance, Barna recently learned that one of the main reasons some pastors are thinking about leaving full-time ministry is political division.

Indeed, new Barna research raises questions about a more divided America. Comparing a June 2022 survey to data collected in 2015, we see growing inconsistencies in U.S. adults’ willingness to discuss important topics with others and to examine their own views.

Since 2015, Adults Are More Willing to Listen—and More Likely to Feel Threatened
At a high level, there seems to be encouraging news: When it comes to topics that are important to U.S. adults, the vast majority agrees (92% agree strongly + somewhat) they’re open to hearing others out, even if they disagree with them. This view has held steady since 2015.*

A similar percentage (91%) agrees they welcome different ways of thinking about important topics. Further, 78 percent of U.S. adults go so far as to say they’re at least somewhat willing to change their mind once it’s made up about an important topic. On both of these points, U.S. adults are more likely to agree in 2022 than they were in 2015.

Generally, U.S. adults today have a pretty rosy perspective on their ability to talk across differences. This runs counter, however, to past Barna research that suggests there are certain divides that are difficult to bridge in conversation. U.S. adults’ own responses today also present friction and indicate an entrenchment of beliefs is on the rise.

Most Americans say “when I am really confident in a belief, there is very little chance that belief is wrong” (68% agree strongly + somewhat). Since 2015, there has been a 24-point jump in agreement (from 44%).

Over half (51%) believe “my ideas are usually better than other people’s ideas;” just 31 percent agreed in 2015.

“I tend to feel threatened when others disagree with me on topics that are close to my heart,” one in three U.S. adults (36%) agrees today—up from just one-quarter (25%) in 2015.

Within this series of questions alone, there is contradiction. By their own account, U.S. adults are both more welcoming of tough conversations and more threatened by them. Most notable is the growing certainty that one’s own ideas cannot be wrong, perhaps leaving less room for discussion, at the very least—or for a change of heart, at the most.

These two periods of data collection fall on either end of an extremely divisive period. A lot has occurred in those seven years. Communities feel the impact on every level, from the church to the home; for example, one in five U.S. adults told Barna that a close relationship was negatively impacted by the 2020 presidential election.

This research seems to confirm the hunches of those who have suspected an increase in polarization. For pastors, it underscores the delicate nature of discipling through moral, social and political issues in a divided era.